Wednesday, May 26, 2021



What's the latest conspiracy? (Media Whalestock/Shutterstock)

This is your brain. This is your brain on conspiracies. Any questions?

Merriam-Webster defines a conspiracy theory as a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators.

Conspiracies 2021

Many have never really gone away and have persisted in the same form for decades. Here are the some of the most current conspiracy theories:

  1. Vaccines: (a) they cause disease but governments and big Pharma are covering it all up; (b) the Covid-19 vaccinations are Bill Gates's attempt to microchip us; (c) vaccinations cause autism (yes, that one is still around and will never die); (d) the Covid-19 vaccination alters the recipient's DNA.
  2. Covid-19 is not real: (a) the illness is actually caused by radiation from 5G mobile phone towers; (b) it was created in a Chinese laboratory (there's now some serious speculation that this could be true! We'll see.).
  3. QAnon-based: high-ranking US politicians and Hollywood celebrities are Satan-worshipping, pedophilic cannibals against the former president, who did not lose the election.
  4. Contrails are actually chemtrails, designed to control populations in some way.
  5. Joseph Biden and the Democratic Party stole the 2020 presidential election.
  6. Anything to do with Anthony Fauci--anything.
  7. The FDA refuses to release the cure for cancer.

Why are conspiracy beliefs so hard to dismantle?

Have you ever tried to argue with a conspiracy theorist and gotten absolutely nowhere? That's because you were trying to do it by presenting logic and/or scientific facts. Well, never fence with an amateur, because they'll beat you every time. Conspiracies aren't based on your logic or fact, only on theirs. Often, conspiracists have researched their positions extensively and might have even more knowledge in that field than you do. Trying to debunk their claims is an exercise in refuting a belief in a belief in a belief--and down the rabbit hole you go. You'll never get out.

During an interview, Donie O'Sullivan asked two people about how they were so sure that thousands of votes for ex-president DJT (I'm trying not to utter the name--makes me break out in hives) were sequestered, and one of the responses was, "I watched it on TV." (Take a look at the clip--it's only about 36 seconds long and you just have to hear the punchline.)

This shows the selectiveness of this woman's belief. If anything to the contrary were demonstrated, again on TV, she would have rejected it outright, because conspiracies are self-accepting and other-rejecting. For example, if votes for DJT were dumped or burned (or shredded and eaten by chickens) in the states he lost, how do we know the same thing didn't happen to Biden's ballots in the states DJT won? This question will be met with a blank stare because it makes absolutely no sense to the conspiracy holder.

The brain on conspiracies

Because conspiracies are so immutable, I wondered if there was a physiologic correlate in the brains of conspiracy believers. Apparently, this might indeed be the case.

To start, in a British sample of 990 subjects, results indicated that a stronger belief in conspiracy theories was significantly associated with lower analytic thinking and open-mindedness and greater intuitive thinking. Unlike in a scientific symposium, people who subscribe to conspiracies tend to think along emotional rather than analytic lines. This is why arguments over conspiracies often become so heated.

It is possible that conspiracy theorists use "cognitive tendencies that are neurologically hardwired and probably have deep evolutionary origins." A 2016 study published in Nature found that, in fights, people who were most resistant to changing their beliefs showed "a lot of activation in their amygdala and insular cortex.

The amygdala (looking at brain from below) [Washington Irving on en.wikipedia ]

The insular cortex (from Johannes Sobotta:Textbook and Atlas of Human Anatomy) 

These areas regulate fear, decision-making, emotional responses and threats, and are very ancient, originating when humans were hunter-gatherers and external forces were genuinely out to attack us.
In other words, belief in something that hadn't actually been proved to exist was a "better safe than sorry" measure.

Why would conspiracy theorists have an active amygdala? My guess is that they were born genetically inclined and that their environment (e.g. parents, peers, culture) further facilitated the development of the amygdala in the direction ("nature + nurture") of conspiracies.

In a very complicated study, the details of which I will spare you, in those subjects who appeared most subject to belief change, activity of the amygdala and insular cortex (as seen in MRI scans) were suppressed below baseline; the opposite was the case for those most resistant to change in beliefs: the amygdala and insular cortex were above baseline.

The bottom line

If you've scanned through this post and your eyes glazed over as soon as you saw diagrams of the brain, here is the takeaway.

The Buddha in meditation with lotus flower (Shutterstock: Andy Lim; fotohunter)

So the next time you feel yourself getting twisted emotionally and intellectually like a pretzel over why people believe in crazy conspiracies, just shrug and think, they have overactive amygdalae. Whatcha gonna do? You'll have a much nicer day.


  1. What Michael said. And I like having an explanation other than the word “stupid,” a name my parents forbid me to apply to a fellow human being.

    1. It's very hard sometimes not to look at these conspiracists as being intellectually challenged (a euphemism if there ever was one), which is no doubt the case in certain instances, but the "physiological model" provides a more tolerant perspective.

  2. For the first time in my very long career, I told a patient to 'Shut Up'. She was lecturing me on immunity, the vaccine and covid. She was disappointed in me that I'd had the Pfizer vaccine as I would die next time I caught the cold as my DNA had been 'done' ( non specified) to 'the pure covid'. Her rant went on longer than my patience did!
    I will try to develop a more tolerant perspective but I doubt I'll succeed...

  3. What a refreshing way to address a most distressing situation. Thank you, Kwei. Living where we do, there are a lot of overactive amygdalae running around waving flags and drinking Kool-aid (actually it was Flavor-aid), all the while sorely testing the overactive crime writer's imagination part of my brain. I dare not say aloud what I'm thinking at those times...which is probably a good thing considering your post.